Madison + Vine: Asics sneaks are 'Kill Bill' sleeper hit

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As Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through the film "Kill Bill," the yellow-and-black Asics sneakers she wears have proved to be the runaway hit.

A limited edition of 3,400 pairs of the Onitsuka Tiger Tai-Chi martial arts shoes went on sale Oct.1. All 1,000 pairs in Japan sold out within a week, the 400 in Europe are gone, and the 2,000 pairs available in the United States, retailing at $65, are almost sold out.

"It's probably one of the most perfect product placements we've ever had," said Dina DeFazio, spokeswoman for Asics' U.S. headquarters in Irvine, Calif.

The Miramax film from director Quentin Tarantino centers on Ms. Thurman, who plays a sword-wielding character called The Bride who seeks revenge on those who nearly killed her on her wedding day. Mr. Tarantino's vision was to pay homage to the kung-fu films of the 1970s. To capture the genre perfectly, he cast Japanese martial-arts legend Sonny Chiba and outfitted Ms. Thurman in the shoes, which are an exact replica of those worn by Bruce Lee in the flick "Game of Death."

Alfie's choice

Asics did not pay to have its sneakers included in the film. The suggestion for using those particular shoes came from Tammy Brainard, one of four owners of the trend-setting retailer Alife in New York. Ms. Brainard is a friend of one of the stylists hired to work on "Kill Bill." When the stylist was talking to Mr. Brainard about looking for a shoe to fit the theme of the movie, she suggested the Onitsuka Tiger.

"At the time we had just started working with Asics," Ms. Brainard said, "and I knew they were eager to get involved with other companies. So we kind of put [Miramax] and Asics in touch."

Lori Sale, exec VP-worldwide promotions, Miramax, said the movie company and the sneaker-maker do not have a deal in place that allows Asics to use the film, imagery or Ms. Thurman for marketing purposes. But Asics can say "as seen in `Kill Bill' " when promoting the shoe.

Toothless tiger

First made in 1949 by Asics founder Kihachiro Onitsuka, the shoe was wildly popular with athletes in the 1950s and `60s, peaking with the martial arts films of the 1970s. In the face of the onslaught of basketball shoes, running shoes and cross-trainers made popular by Nike, Reebok, Puma and Adidas, the Onitsuka Tiger suddenly became toothless.

But the marketer reintroduced the shoe in 2001 in two color schemes-white with black stripes, and black with red stripes-hoping to cash in on the wave of "retro" shoes that many sneaker lines were bringing back.

And it appears to be working. Asics announced last month it had recorded a net profit of $2.6 billion for the third quarter, exceeding its $1.8 billion estimate and bettering the $2.1 billion profit from the same time period a year ago.

How the sales of the Onitsuka Tiger play into the company's future earnings remains to be seen, but the reaction to "Kill Bill" has been tangible-and the second part of Mr. Tarantino's epic will be released next year.

"It's funny. We got them a long time ago, had them out and everything, and then there were delays in [the release] of the film and they didn't sell very well," Ms. Brainard said. "Then the film came out, and you can really see the power of marketing. The demand has been far greater."

Ms. DeFazio said there are no plans to sell the yellow-and-black version of the shoes worn by Ms. Thurman after the limited-edition run is gone, although the other two color schemes, also featured in the movie, will be available. But the company did say it would consider marketing other products from the film, such as its Wrestling 81 sneakers, if asked by Miramax.

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